Urban sprawl is a legitimate issue for cities across Canada and has been a discussion topic for decades. It leads to more traffic congestion, more infrastructure to build and maintain, and more impact on the natural environment.
There is merit in the idea of curbing urban sprawl, but how?
Way back in the 1950s when urban sprawl was hard to find (at least in comparison to today) plans in Canada’s National Capital Region were already put in motion to prevent it. The federal government started expropriating land in 1956 for what we know today as Ottawa’s Greenbelt.
To quote Wikipedia: “(The Greenbelt’s) original purpose included the prevention of urban sprawl (which was threatening the rural areas surrounding the city), as well as to provide open space for the future development of farms, natural areas and government campuses.
“At the time, the greenbelt was ‘intended to circumscribe an area large enough for the accommodation of some 500,000 persons. The inner limit was chosen by considering what area could be economically provided with municipal services.’”
Sixty-some years later, the Greenbelt as a limit to growth has proven to be a failure – a bit like a fellow whose tummy exceeds his belt.
Distance carries a cost
From one perspective, Ottawa’s Greenbelt can be viewed as a positive, looked upon as the “lungs of the city.” But from an operational perspective, the cost to extend services across those miles of nature to the growing suburban communities on the other side is constantly rising.
Take public transit – buses and trains need to cross this leafy swath, which add to the operating costs for the entire system, with no intermediate customers contributing to revenue.
The same logic would apply to the cost of roads and other utilities, plus the additional commute time (in ordinary times) for people who live further out – if you live on one side of the Greenbelt and work on the other, the time to cross it will add up to about 24 hours per person per year.
Meanwhile, the City of Ottawa has long endorsed the idea of densification within the Greenbelt – more people in less space. More higher-rise condos, smaller lots for homes and so on.
We have already seen through the pandemic how eager some people are to reject these cramped lifestyles and move elsewhere if they no longer have to commute to work.
Exporting urban sprawl across Eastern Ontario
And yet, despite this mixed bag of benefits, city planners think the best way forward for the 21st century is to double down on the Greenbelt concept by adding a “Goldbelt” around it, by expropriating another 1,281 hectares of land.
I agree with those critics who believe a Goldbelt will simply continue to drive growth further from the centre, with the following consequences.
Ottawa, like every major city, is ringed by satellite communities that are already bedroom communities, 45 or 60 minutes from downtown (in good traffic).
With road improvements in recent years, more communities further out have become bedroom communities – in Ottawa we think of Kemptville, Smiths Falls, Perth, Arnprior or Casselman.
Another belt will only drive more development to these outlying communities. So much so that employers may start to follow the employees.
The loss of farmland and natural habitat will just shift from the immediate vicinity of Ottawa to these other communities. Instead of limiting urban sprawl to one general area, it will sprout across Eastern Ontario.
Upside vs. missed opportunity
From an economic standpoint, this could of course have benefits.
I have talked many times before about the decline of Small Town Canada, as local manufacturing consolidated and moved overseas through the late 20th century.
This could be reversed to some degree, not necessarily with the return of manufacturing, but with other white-collar and knowledge-based industries, such as pharmaceutical production of vaccines, setting up shop in smaller towns.
But again, those same issues with sprawl must still be dealt with. Instead of a Goldbelt, what we really might want to achieve are firm rules and land-use policies focused on protecting good farmland.
Development is a must and it might reflect an ad I saw years ago – “There’s a job at the end of every street.” Employment and housing should go together but take place on less fertile land, while quality farmland and significant wetland habitat is protected.
This could be part of a larger strategy to increase local food production and create greater resiliency and security in our domestic supply chain from the farm gate to your plate. The pandemic has certainly left us with greater appreciation for the vital importance of this “buy and support local” mantra.
Rethink urban development
Now, what about inside the existing Greenbelt?
Let’s be frank. No belt, or series of belts, is going to constrain urban development and growth. It will simply leapfrog whatever stands in its way. Ottawa and its peers in 200 years have never stopped growing. But, we must make more sustainable use of the real estate and acreage we do have.
Our strategy for doing so should be less about smaller lot sizes and 500-square-foot condos and more about effectively blending green space and built space. This way, we each have enough space that is truly liveable and not just tolerable.
There are many examples all over the world where nature and architecture are being blended in new and innovative ways. So the concrete jungle looks more like an actual jungle, instead of block after block of urban mundanity separated by the odd park. (Look at architect Stefano Boeri’s Vertical Forest in Milan or its successor, China’s Liuzhou Forest City.)
The question we must ask ourselves is what really serves our needs for the future – new urban planning ideas, or old ones recycled from 60 years ago?
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